For years, I’ve been told to follow my heart by everyone and their mother.
The heart, after all, is the throne of the Real You. Untouched by what your peers have been whispering in your ears and Hollywood has been feeding your eyes. Pure you-ness.
The heart separates the things you want because you are you from the yearnings that are not, ultimately, really you. Its light exposes these less authentic aspirations as the polluted inclinations they are.
And if you follow the guidance of these pristine voices, you’ll, as they say, become who you already are. You’ll fulfill your potential.
In this essay, I want to take a closer look at what it means to ‘follow your heart.’ Does the concept of a really-you desire even make sense? Are there authentic plans we have purely in virtue of being the unique person we are?
“The heart is a double agent”
In a way, when people urge us to follow our heart, they implore us to think by feeling.
The next-most-obvious questions are:
- Where do those feelings originate?
- Does the true explanation of why we have those feelings justify the weight we place on them?
The heart is a double agent that usually takes its instructions from the dominant myths of the day.
What does he mean when he outs that heart we’re supposed to follow as a double agent? It’s hardly an obvious metaphor.
His point is, whatever your heart ‘wants’, the Real You isn’t the sole contributor. Hearts work for another employer too:
Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually programmed [by the dominant myths of the day].
This, you’ll notice, contradicts the ideas we started with. So let’s examine carefully.
Harari has an explanation for why even our “most personal desires” are “usually programmed.”
Consider how, in ancient Egypt, rich people spent their money building tombs and having their corpses mummified because they bought the myths featuring Isis and Osiris, Anubis and Horus.
As a result of these beliefs, building pyramids was the kind of thing rich people in Egypt did with their money.
Humans today buy different things. Like an expensive trip to Paris.
This want is not, Harari maintains, the reflection of some independent desire. Rather, we’re merely doing the kind of thing ‘people like us’ do.
People like us, namely, have faith in the myths of romantic consumerism.
These dictate that (a) to fulfill our potential we must have many different experiences (b) to be happy we must consume many products and services. As a result, people like us spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad.
Exactly like the dominant assumption in ancient Egypt was that ‘people like us’ build pyramids and mummify our corpses.
We simply switched myths:
Like the elite of ancient Egypt, most people in most cultures dedicate their lives to building pyramids. Only the names, shapes and sizes of these pyramids change from one culture to the other. They may take the form, for example, of a suburban cottage with a swimming pool and an evergreen lawn, or a gleaming penthouse with an enviable view. Few question the myths that cause us to desire the pyramid in the first place. — Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
We’re all just building pyramids
This is interesting, but things are still unclear.
The dominant myths of the day constrain our imagination and our fascination. So what?
Well, it means that when you think about what you truly desire, what feelslike the Real You is actually (when zoomed out) playing connect-the-dots on a pre-printed set of steps laid out by someone else.
What feels like our chosen path could just be one of a handful of pre-set, tribe-approved yellow brick roads.
For most of us, from the first day we are able to remember until the last day we breathe, our actions are primarily driven by one question, “Do people like me do things like this?”
Lionel Messi might not know you exist, but if you define “people like me” as the group he’s part of, then your decisions will be influenced by your perception of who you are and who he is and your invented connection.
What feels like creativity might be filling in a Germanic, Egyptian or consumerist coloring book — and making sure to stay inside the lines.
Now who are the imposters?
To see why this is potentially worrisome, we need to take one more step.
Of course, my ambition to, for instance, acquire a doctoral degree in philosophy depends on environmental factors. It’s a dream I might not have had would I have been born another place, another time. But why does thatmake it less Me? Why does it matter that our heart’s instructions would have been different if we would have been from a distant culture, or have been raised by another family, and so on?
This contingency casts doubt on the distinction between desires that have been (a) planted in you and those (b) free from external influences.
That, you’ll remember, was the exact difference the all-revealing light of our hearts was supposed to bring out into the open.
If all goals are prompted, it means there are no original ambitions that have been pushed out by cultivated ones.
All dreams come ‘from somewhere.’ There are no desires that originate entirely within you, and purely and only reflect your soul.
What feels like originality…
An example to clarify.
Let’s assume that in the depth of my thoughts I’m convinced I’m an old Germanic tribesman. I’m devoted to my roots, and at my happiest when trekking through the floodplains of nearby rivers. I know full well it’s 2019, and I grew up in a house built in the 1980s, somewhere in a village near a river, that I cycle to work through the meadows and spent my time there reading and writing philosophical texts. Still, I feel completely at home in the immeasurable emptiness of the landscape, with all the water engulfing the floodplains. I am a Germanic tribesman at heart.
Here’s the thing.
Why would the inclinations to camp on a dike and roll in the mud, those of the Germanic tribesman in me, be any more original than my sown-by-modern-society desire for blue suede shoes or craving for a good-old wasted-away weekend of gaming(playing as Babylon on Civilization, preferably)?
Think about that question for a minute
It’s not true that the one is “authentic” and the other isn’t. They are both the product of certain myths.
The former feeling adheres to the shared viewpoints of ancient Germanic people. The latter follows contemporary culture.
It’s all “programmed” by how you answer the question “do people like us do things like this?”
The romanticist idea of instincts that come only from within me is a fiction:
Myths and actions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts … This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture’. — Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
What following your heart can’t mean
Now should we be worried?
Let’s recap and make up our minds.
In our romanticist culture, it’s a truism that there are two kinds of desire. One class of wants is influenced by external factors. It’s polluted. The other category of yearnings is free from such disturbing elements: their not-you component is null. They are pure.
This sounds sensible, but I now have my doubts about this division.
If Harari is right, then trying to tease these two apart, looking for the Real You, is a futile exercise. The idea of a desire where the ‘polluting’ part equals zero, is suspect. There are no such things.
We talk a lot about ‘authentic’ desires, but if by ‘authentic’ we mean
something that developed independently, and that’s free of external inɻuences, then there are no authentic desires.
If you’re scouting your soul for those, your search will come up empty.
I’ve been trying to convince you of two things today:
- Influences are an important and inevitable part of who each of us is.
- Don’t desperately search for a Real You underneath all of them. It doesn’t exist.
Sounds like an unsettling red pill? On the contrary, I find it an incredibly empowering insight.
It frees you from the tyranny of the Real You.
It’s time to stop looking for something inside you — the Real You — that you, were you to discover it, would now owe meek fidelity to on pain of being “inauthentic” (or “basic”).
Don’t ask “Who am I really, deep down?” Ask: “Who do I want to be?”
It’s time to quit attaching yourself so much to the person you think you are.
Stop holding yourself back, and start crafting your identity instead.